Memories of the Pearl Harbor Attack Haven't Faded with Time
by Kathy Warnes
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor changed the lives of Americans everywhere. Haunting historical images of the day travel across time and space.
On Sunday, December 7, 1941, the voice of John Charles Daly from the Columbia Radio Broadcast resembled the measured tones of a solemn minister delivering his Sunday sermon.
“…There is a conviction in official quarters that Japan has officially cast the die…The Japanese have attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu on the Hawaiian islands.”
Yet, there is a sense of immediacy because Daly read the news bulletins as soon as they came in.
“…KGMB in Honolulu reports air raids are still on and anti-aircraft fire can be heard in steady bursts.”
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt Spoke the Next Day
The next day, the voice of Franklin Delano Roosevelt summarized the situation for history:
“Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. The attack was dastardly and unprovoked. Always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us. We will gain the inevitable triumph.”
The images of the date which lived in infamy include billowing clouds of smoke and crippled battleships sinking like mortally wounded dinosaurs. The images of Pearl Harbor are men and women somehow surviving the smoke and flames and swarming like ants down the sides of ships to rescue boats. The images are of men surviving to fight again.
One of the images of the day is Dorie Miller, a 22-year-old black mess sergeant second class on the battleship West Virginia. The West Virginia had been heavily hit, and Captain Mervyn S. Bennion, mortally wounded, stood on the signal bridge directing his men.
Dorie Miller had never been trained to fire a machine gun, but he manned a machine gun near his captain while the other men tried to remove Captain Bennion to safety. The men directed a line over the flames from the forward aircraft lookout to rescue ships and tried to convince the captain to leave. Captain Bennion ordered his men to abandon ship, and he was last seen trying to get to his feet. He was alone when he died.
Ordinary People Hear the News of Pearl Harbor
Images of people in America hearing the news of Pearl Harbor are as diverse as their personalities and lifestyle. Doreen Medenhall of Milwaukee, who later became a WAVE, heard the news on the pantry radio while she was baking cookies. That night she and a date went to a restaurant on North Avenue. Her date wore his civilian clothes instead of his Navy uniform, but she knew that this was probably the last time that he would wear his civilian clothes for a long time. The band played “Elmer’s Tune,” and the seriousness of the situation made them sit at their table staring at each other. They didn’t even dance.
Virginia Witte of Milwaukee remembers that many people didn’t realize the full implication of the news at first, but sensed that something life changing had happened that Sunday morning in Hawaii. She eventually joined the WAVES.
Many Americans like Jim Burns and Thomas and Betty Davison of Milwaukee had finished their Sunday dinners and were listening to the football game when the news came over the radio.
“We knew this was war and all we could do was sit around and talk about it for the rest of that Sunday,” Tom Davison said. “But the next day, Monday, I went down to the Naval Recruiting office.” He spent the war working in the Sturgeon Bay shipyards, and as a United States Customs inspector in El Paso, Texas.
“I knew my brother and I were going go get into it,” Jim Burns said. “I was over visiting my parents and I remember thinking how hard this was going to be on them.” Jim joined the Navy and served on a minesweeper in the invasions of Sicily, Solerno and Anzio.
Pearl Harbor Casualties
The sight and sound realities add up to staggering loss totals at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese sank or severely damaged five battleships, three destroyers,and the mine layers Oglala and the Utah. The three battleships Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Tennessee, and three cruisers, Helena, Honolulu and Raleigh, and the seaplane tender Curtiss and the repair ship Vestal, were damaged. The Japanese destroyed 80 naval aircraft of all types, and the Army lost 97 planes on Hickam and Wheeler Fields.
The American Navy and Army did fight back. Navy anti-aircraft shot down 28 Japanese planes and Army pursuit planes shot down over 20, which was about the half the number that hit Pearl Harbor. According to the Navy, the Japanese didn’t realize how much damage they had done at Pearl Harbor. If Japan had brought in her fleet behind the 105 planes, she could have captured Hawaii.
The most serious American losses were people – the officers and enlisted men and women of the Navy, Marine Corps and Army. When the Japanese planes finally headed back to their carriers, they left 2,403 dead, 188 destroyed planes and a crippled Pacific Fleet that included 8 damaged or destroyed battleships. Japanese Admiral Yamamoto was reported to have said of the Pearl Harbor attack which he planned, “I can run wild for six months…after that, I have no expectation of success.”
After the Pearl Harbor attack, most Americans no longer disagreed about isolationism, neutrality or involvement in World War II. American unity clicked into place.
The Navy Hospital Ship Solace
The Navy Hospital Ship Solace was moored next to the battleship Arizona at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and immediately sent her motor launches with stretcher parties to the burning Arizona. Solace personnel helped evacuate the wounded, and pulled men from the water that was covered in burning oil. The Solace boat crews made several trips to the Arizona, West Virginia, and then to the Oklahoma. One story goes that a nurse found a chaplain’s cross glinting in the flames on the deck of the burning Arizona.
As President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, we gained “the inevitable triumph,” and now the images of infamy are receding into history. Eye and ear witnesses are accumulating mortality along with their memories.
Images of Pearl Harbor include the reality of America being caught woefully unprepared yet fighting its way from defeat to victory. The image of the Arizona Memorial with both Japanese and American visitors honoring the men entombed inside of it inspires. The image of the Chaplin’s cross glinting in the flames from the Arizona endures.
Diver Frank Prebezich Remembers Pearl Harbor After December 7, 1941
Part of Frank Prebezich’s story began with a warning to those aboard the battleship Oklahoma on December 7, 1941. This message blared over the ship’s squaw box.
All hands to general quarters! This is no—-! The Japs are attacking!”
Sailors rushed to their battle stations and kept firing until the deck was awash as the ship keeled over on the shallow bottom of Pearl Harbor. Hundreds of men were trapped below, but civilian workers who later heard tapping cut holes in the hull and rescued 32 men.
Navy Salvage Diver Frank Prebezich Worked on the Oklahoma
Frank Prebezich, a Navy salvage diver, arrived a week later to help raise the sunken battleships.
“There were overturned ships and oil slicks still on the water,” Frank recalled. He worked forward on the Oklahoma closing and sealing hatches and doors to permit air to be pumped in and the ship raised to the surface.
After he graduated from the Pier 88 Salvage Diver’s School in New York, Frank became an instructor at the school. He returned to the city in 1945 to help right the French liner Normandie, which had burned, sank and capsized alongside its pier.
In 1936 , Frank began his military career when he enlisted in the Naval Reserve in Milwaukee. In 1940, after he had graduated from the Navy Diving School he became a a 2nd Class Petty Officer, and his unit was mobilized for a year of active duty.
Then came “the Day of Infamy.” He arrived in Pearl Harbor Hawaii aboard the repair ship Prometheus. The ships’ mission: Clear Pearl Harbor and save as many ships as possible.
One of the hazards of the task that Frank remembered most vividly was the danger from the poisonous gas from the ammunition in the water and the vapor from decomposing bodies.
“We had a patch installed in our helmets and when it turned colors we were supposed to come up right away because that meant the gases were concentrated pretty heavily,” he said.
Frank Prebezich Goes to New Caledonia
The Oklahoma and other battle ships, except the Arizona, returned to service in 1942, and Frank was sent to an advance naval base in New Caledonia where he spent the remainder of the war aboard a repair ship.
Two months before his outfit was mobilized, Frank married Trudie. While overseas in 1942, he received a telegram that told him he had a son. “I passed out cigars,” he recalled.
Throughout his hazardous wartime duty, Frank managed to keep his sense of humor. He remembered one particular dive with a smile. On June 23, 1942, he was a diver attached to a repair ship in the harbor at the advance base at Noumea, New Caledonia. The diving officer summoned him and told him to report to the San Diego, one of the two cruisers anchored in the harbor. He said that during the last engagement a small oil slick was noticed in the ship’s wake and “we knew that could leave a trail for the enemy to follow. My job was to locate the leak and find out what caused it.”
Frank Prebezich Dives to Find a Leak
Frank made all of the preparations for diving and dressed for a shallow dive. Descending about 10 feet, he noticed that one of the rivets was leaking air, which no doubt came from the air that was being pumped into the fuel oil tanks. Down further, he noticed a couple more leaks. He surfaced to report his findings. The Navy had some new equipment that he was not familiar with so he was given a fast course on how to operate the new equipment.
Again he went down to work on the first rivet. The object was to center the tool over the rivet and pull the trigger of the tool, which was supposed to fire a charge and eject a hardened projector into the rivet, expand it, and stop the leak.He pulled the trigger a few times with no results. He surfaced to report his dilemma. The officer read over the instructions again and determined that a small water seal was required when being used under water.
Frank descended again. This time he followed all of the instructions and it worked. After expanding the three rivets, he noticed some other leaks developing farther down toward the hinges. He went down to investigate and before he finished, he had to go down even deeper under the ship.
Frank Prebezich Sees a Red Light Above Him
An hour and seven rivets later, it seemed that he had stopped all of the leaks. He signaled his tender that he was coming up. As he started up he looked up and was startled to see a fire red light above him. He was so shocked that for a moment he stopped to compose himself. He feared that he might pass out, fall farther down, and injure himself. He grasped his lifeline and after a few seconds felt a bit better and started up again, slowly.
When he broke the surface, he discovered a beautiful, clear day with a bright sun. Quickly he climbed aboard the launch, took off his diving mask and tried to figure out what had caused the fire red light above him.
He looked over at the stern and noticed that the water was very foamy and blue. Then he found out that the cruiser San Juan had a laundry discharge right where he was diving. “The San Juan had discharged a batch of water used to wash dungarees. As I was coming up looking into the bright sunlight, everything had turned bright red.”
Lord, Walter. Day of Infamy. 60th Anniversary : The Classic Account of the Bombing of Pearl Harbor. Henry Holt, 2001.
Prange, Gordon W. Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History. Penguin, 1991.
Prange, Gordon. At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor. Penguin Books, 1982.
Stinnett, Robert. Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor. Free Press, 2001.